That tug you feel while watching CSI emanates from the comforting notion that the Las Vegas Crime Scene Investigation squad can take a mere stray carpet fiber or a trod-upon gumdrop and build a plausible scenario for putting away the right bad guy. But in this week's edition of the documentary series Frontline, titled ''An Ordinary Crime,'' you're drawn in by precisely the opposite fascination: No amount of evidence is enough to save what is almost certainly an innocent man.
It's too bad that, in most markets, these two shows will air at the same time (check your local listings for Frontline, which is repeated later in the week in some areas). Now in only season 2, CSI has become one of the mightiest shows on TV, besting those puny Survivor: Africa punks who precede them and even hitting No. 1 in the Nielsens for the week of Dec. 3.
The reason for CSI's success is that it combines a few time-tested TV elements in a fresh way. Each episode presents a murder case and a group of lovable heroes armed with cool, high-tech gadgets who do the sleuthing and wrap things up in an hour. This season, the team seems even more like a family: grumpy but omniscient dad (William Petersen's Gil Grissom); a wise yet hotsy mom (Marg Helgenberger's Catherine Willows); a tomboy daughter (Jorja Fox's Sara Sidle); and a couple of competitive, hotheaded brothers (George Eads' Nick Stokes and Gary Dourdan's Warrick Brown).
Daddy Gil radiates all-knowing aplomb (gazing over a crime scene, he murmurs, ''Why do they think they can fool us?''); mommy Catherine is an ex-stripper who feels she has to work twice as hard to prove she's got the legit crime-solving goods; the others squabble genially and genuinely, hoping to win favor with daddy. Given their case-closing rate, CSI presents one of the more functional prime-time families.
That said, I think the show is best when it steers away from the personal lives of the characters. A recent episode about the wayward daughter of Grissom's boss (the enjoyably lugubrious Paul Guilfoyle) veered dangerously into tearjerker territory. And I'd sooner watch the most graphic of CSI's patented CGI zooms up inside a cadaver's nostril than sit through another scene of the smitten lab technician Greg Sanders (Eric Szmanda) mooning over Sara. CSI provides the most pleasure when it's all business.
Frontline, meanwhile, follows a 1997 case in which most of the lawmen are heroes, but the judicial judgments handed down after the evidence is gathered would make Grissom sick to his stomach. In a small town in North Carolina town, three guys commit a holdup; while grabbing some cash, one of them shoots a woman, who survives. Like the title says: an ordinary crime. Except, of course, for those involved. Everyone agrees that the shooter is a man named Terrance, and a Terence Garner, now 21, is currently serving a minimum of 32 years in jail. Yet director-producer Ofra Bikel, doing an off-camera Grissom-type interrogation, implies that the crime was actually committed by a Terrance Deloach, who confessed to the crime but later recanted.
Who else defends Garner? One of the men involved in the robbery, who says he never met Garner and that, furthermore, Deloach is his cousin; one of the eyewitnesses to the crime, a woman who says she's sure it wasn't Garner because she's known him since he was a child; plus the case's lead detective. So who says Garner did it? The woman who was shot, avowing she's ''120 percent sure''even though she saw him for only a few seconds and she was shot in one eye; the district attorney, who says, basically, that everybody's lying; and the judge who passed the sentence, who asserts simply that Garner is guilty, but ''that's just my opinion.'' This Frontline is as tense as any thrillercomplete with bullied suspects, shady plea bargains, and a smiling hanging judge.
Bikel's previous trio of documentaries, collectively titled Innocence Lost, were magnificent exposes of the media-fed hysteria over alleged child sexual abuse at a North Carolina day-care center. She is a meticulously calm, ferociously dogged reporter. When Bikel comes a-knockin', wise people (of whom she encounters few) head for the hills; Bikel pries open, as if they were weak-willed clams, misstatements, half-truths, stupidity, and lies. All these elements seem patent in ''An Ordinary Crime,'' and as sure as CSI deserves a best-drama Emmy, so this documentary ought to help set a real-life person free. CSI: A- Frontline: A-